Initially daily but now sporadic blog about anime and world animation with a specific focus on the artists behind the work. Written by Ben Ettinger.
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Archives for: January 2014, 28

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

12:50:00 am , 1536 words, 6906 views     Categories: TV, Space Dandy

Space Dandy #1

This is a little late, but I finally checked out Bones' new show Space Dandy. The show did not surprise or overwhelm; it delivered about what I was expecting. Thrilling in some respects, underwhelming in others. In spirit it's a throwback to an earlier time of action adventure when heroes roamed the galaxy with ray guns battling colorful aliens, but re-imagined with an attitude of ironic, affected cool that is the trademark of director Shinichiro Watanabe. With its Boobies Breastaurant, kooky aliens and jokey vibe, the show reminds of the Space Quest games, in which a bumbling protagonist went about inadvertently saving the universe.

The first episode plays it a little more safe than I would have preferred. Rather than pulling you in, the episode just tugs a bit, teasing you with a quick intro to the characters and world and its panoply of imaginatively designed aliens. It's certainly entertaining enough, but it's not quite irresistible, and not quite as clever as it thinks it is. The pacing is slow and the directing measured, and there's little in terms of plot or character introduction. That's not necessarily a bad thing; it's certainly a refreshing change compared to the exhaustingly over-the-top, in-your-face directing and convoluted conceptual schemes of other shows. The first episode ends in a peculiar way - with all of the main actors dead - as if they started telling this story from the end, which is obviously meant to spur fan theorizing, and probably has.

The fun of the show so far is in its oddball ideas: Space alien cat who likes to sneak crotch shots of waitresses with his smartphone and wears crocs. S&M Statue of Liberty headed spaceship. Arch-enemy space pimp ape. Transporter button that looks like a Wii controller.

One of the show's pulls overall is the many alien designs. Apparently hundreds of designs have been made by the various staff, including special guests like Katsushiro Otomo and Katsuya Terada. The fun of each new episode will be in seeing the crazy new aliens the protagonist has to battle against. A number of the actual design drawings feature in the opening, in their original sketchy rendering, to highlight this feature. It's nice to have a show like this where many peoples' creativity is pooled to provide a show's backbone. It reminds of the old days of Toei Doga movies, when they used to solicit designs from the whole crew, and any worthy designs would be used, no matter your rank.

Although the chief director of the show is Shinichiro Watanabe, the director of the show is Shingo Natsume, who began as an animator around 2003. I first came to notice him as a talented animator in 2006 in Welcome to the NHK. He appears to have made the transition to directing around the time he directed Tatami Galaxy ep 6, a truly fine episode featuring a bevy of interesting animators. The animator-centric approach remained for his next big job, the FMA Milos film, in which he was line director of this film that went to great pains to serve as a raw and unmediated showcase of the work of talented action animators. Kenichi Konishi was the animation director of FMA Milos, and he had previously pioneered this approach to giving a hand-drawn feeling by reproducing the animator's line in the 2006 Doraemon movie. The same approach seems to have been taken in the first episode of Space Dandy: When a good animator animates a section, it's not corrected. You're seeing every line they drew, the way they drew it. Natsume started out as an idiosyncratic animator, and he makes it a priority as a director to provide such animators working under him with the same opportunities to express themselves.

The first episode has a strange balance, restrained in its pacing for the most part before exploding into action in the last inning. While the majority of the episode is watchable, it's when the action hits the screen that the episode is most memorable. The real stars of the episode are the animators of the climactic action scene, which has real impact in part because what came before was so still, and also probably in large part because, with Natsume at the helm, they were able to really pour themselves into the work, and you're seeing their work in close to the raw state.

Bahi JD steals the show in this episode with his short but intense scene. It's a long-awaited return to the sort of Shithead Action that he started out creating in animated gifs. In just 50 seconds and 13 shots, he managed to pin my head back with some of the most exciting action I've seen in quite a while. His bit begins from the shot where the protagonist is whacked into the air by the advancing alien and continues until the water monster gets hit by bolts of electricity. If the sequence seems to move a lot, that's because it does: Bahi drew 1893 drawings for that 50-second sequence over the span of two months. Only 20 or so of all of those drawings were corrected by the sakkan Yoshiyuki Ito, so you are seeing a nearly 100% Bahi scene. On top of that, the tracer (inbetweener) reportedly did a very good job of reproducing Bahi's line, which is not always a given, so it's a great showcase of Bahi's talent.

Another thing is the density of his animation, which he achieved by using a lot of layers. Shinya Ohira was famous for using an absurd number of layers of cels in his animation in the 1980s. Some shots he animated for Gal Force, for example, used something like 15 layers and were rejected by the photographer as unshootable due to the limitations of the hardware. Beyond a certain point, the image would presumably become blurry because it was cels. In digital, you don't have that limitation, and Bahi took advantage of this in particular in the last shot, where he piled on the layers (beyond what his timesheet could handle) to create a dense cacophony of movement as the monsters battle it out.

Due to the unique way he evolved as an animator, I find that his animation moves in a way that stands out in the context, in a good way. Most Japanese animation, even the good stuff, tends to have the same rhythm deep down, but Bahi's rhythms are unique to him. His work breaks the monotony of texture of the animation. Bravo on a job well done. He went beyond the call of duty on that scene.

Yutaka Nakamura picks up right after Bahi, creating one of his best sequences to date, not that Yutaka Nakamura ever disappoints. Nakamura reportedly improvised the portion where the protagonist and cat slide down towards the enormous battling aliens, as well as the thumbs up gesture as the alien melts away, which appears to be an homage to the thumbs up at the end of T2. It's not quite clear why the characters turn dayglo as they're sliding down, but it's quite pretty. The sequence has incredible speed and momentum to it, along with lots of lovely Yutapon blocks and geometrical effects. It's also one of Yutapon's most fun scenes, with a Buster Keaton-esque part where a giant wall of rock falls on the protagonists but they're OK because there happens to be a window in the rock where it fell on them.

Other notable sequences: The section immediately after Yutaka Nakamura's, beginning from the point where the monster teleports into the spaceship, is apparently the work of a very new animator named Norifumi Kugai, who has a great instinct for full-limited style animation. Kono Megumi may have done part of the portion in the cockpit immediately before they warp out. The cat being shot at by Dandy in the restaurant was by Gosei Oda, while the section immediately preceding with the cat taking snaps was by Shintaro Doge. Both provided good work on the Milos movie under Natsume. Shintaro Doge is an exception to what I mentioned earlier, in that his work appears to have been corrected extensively, whereas Gosei Oda's appears more uncorrected, like Bahi's section. Similarly, Tomohisa Shimoyama, an animator here, was a sakkan on Milos. Milos "animation director" Kiyotaka Oshiyama was here an alien designer alongside Shintaro Doge. There's a lot of overlap with that movie.

There were quite a few alien designers credited. Episode storyboarder/director and series director Shingo Natsume is credited with "guest alien design" while
"the usual alien design" was provided by Takuhito Kusanagi, Michio Mihara, Kiyotaka Oshiyama, Shintaro Doge, Yuka Koiso and a person named Niθ. Mihara will reportedly be providing an episode later on. Natsume designed the big aliens at the end.

The show has many notable names involved besides this: Directors Atsushi Takahashi, Hiroshi Hamasaki, Goro Taniguchi and Toshio Hirata, animators Hiroyuki Aoyama, Atsuko Tanaka, Hiroshi Shimizu and Hisashi Mori, and writers Ichiro Okochi and Dai Sato, to name but a few, will be appearing in upcoming episodes. Masaaki Yuasa is reportedly doing his own episode, as is Michio Mihara. Sayo Yamamoto did the ending, and hopefully will be in for an episode at least. Much to look forward to. The show appears poised to be filled with great variety.